Tropical Gardening: Ancient, historical trees need special attention

  • Photo courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE

    The Indian banyan at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel after being pruned last week still maintains its character and beauty. Proper pruning practices keep our unique trees healthy and happy.

Some of our ancient, historical trees, such as the banyan at Kona’s King Kamehameha Beach Hotel, get so big that we tend to overprune them to keep them in scale. This amazing tree is the first thing visitors see as they enter by ship at Kailua Bay, so it is important it is properly maintained.

A certified arborist or companies that specialize in pruning can do the job without negatively affecting the health of the tree. The loss of these truly amazing members of the fig family would be tragic. Imagine the destruction of the Malayan banyans on Hilo’s Banyan Drive.


The Great Banyan on the grounds of Kona’s Hulihe‘e Palace is another that is now protected but a few decades ago, there was concern it might be cut down.

The Morton Bay fig at Banyan’s surfing spot was not so lucky. The excuse used was that it was blocking the view of some condo owners. Awe! Fortunately, the Hawaiian community demanded that the tree be replaced; although, it will take many years to achieve the proportions of the original tree. Seedlings of the original tree were planted at Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary in Kaloko Mauka, and because of the ideal environment are now almost 100 feet tall.

By proper pruning, we increase light availability to understory plants. Since some light is essential to plant vigor, it is a good idea to open up these heavy canopied trees.

Even when we are careful to select the right trees for the landscape, and shade lovers for underneath, there comes a time when we must consider pruning.

Whatever the natural form is in the beginning, it should be maintained. That means individual handling of each problem. Trees should be pruned in such a manner as to remove enough of the canopy to allow gale force winds through the tree. Most tree experts agree that heavily topped or hat racked trees will be more susceptible to disease and insect attacks, so this practice is not recommended.

Pruning should be done for a purpose, such as to maintain the natural shape, remove diseased or awkward branches or reduce the size of a vigorous grower.

Pruning becomes an important chore for several reasons. Trees that respond to day length and bloom during the winter or spring months should be pruned through the summer months.

Many of our tropical trees grow rampant with extensive root systems. That is why we prune to keep them from getting out of hand, but let’s not forget the roots might need some pruning, too. This is best done after hurricane season.

The King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel has had to deal with this problem through the years. The famous Indian banyan tree on the makai side of the hotel was lifting the corner of the building. With love and respect for trees, a certified arborist was called and together, with the support of the hotel folks and the community, they solved the problem.

Last week, this landmark banyan was again in need of pruning. A local company, Arborist Services, carefully pruned the tree. In discussing the situation with Mark O’dell, an ASCA registered consulting arborist, pointed out that banyans normally send down aerial roots to support the extending branches like the great banyan in Lahaina, Maui.

Since the King Kam banyan branches reach out over the pavement, it creates a challenge. However, there is ample room to allow some aerial roots to attach. The tree is on county and hotel lands, so being creative and allowing the tree to have support will require cooperation between the two entities.

The Morton Bay fig just south of the Fish Hopper Restaurant is another now at risk. It seriously needs attention. Water and fertilizer is essential to bring it back to a healthy condition.

The trouble with roots of many big trees such as banyans is that they are greedy. Fortunately, there are many landscape plants such as monstera, pothos, and philodendron species, bromeliad species and ground covers such as ruellia that will tolerate these conditions.

Pruning trees and their roots can be dangerous, so if the job is major, it is better to call in a qualified arborist. This will also aid you in avoiding a butcher job that will cost a lot more in the long run.


When it comes to fertilization, it is better to keep it on the light side until late fall. Then, an application of a complete fertilizer containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium plus trace elements will carry trees until spring.

Trees are part of the beauty of our islands. Rather than destroying these valuable assets, work with them. Proper selection of plants to grow under their protective canopy is important. Proper pruning, fertilization and irrigation are musts.